December 10, 2023

Governments, agencies and development banks have spent more aid money on clean air than fossil fuels for the first time on record, a report has found.

However, such projects still receive less than 1% of international development funding, according to the Clean Air Fund, an environmental charity.

Toxic particles in the air are the fourth-biggest killer globally, but campaigners say efforts to get rid of them have been “chronically” starved of cash. Only blood pressure, smoking and diet play a bigger role in whether people die too early.

Jane Burston, the executive director of the Clean Air Fund, said cleaning the air saves lives, grows economies and slows the climate crisis, adding: “It’s the single thing that has the biggest bang for your buck if you fund it.”

The report found that international aid for fossil fuels peaked in 2019 and has fallen fast but still lingers. In 2021, about $1.5bn (£1.2bn) was spent on fossil fuel projects like building coal plants or gas pipelines, down from $11.9bn two years earlier. The amount spent on tackling outdoor air pollution has risen to $2.3bn.

Despite this shift, spending targeted at clean air made up just 1% of international development funding and 2% of international public climate finance between 2015 and 2021, the report found.

“The trend is good but the funding is increasing from a very low base,” said Burston. “It’s not increasing quickly enough,” she added.

Nor has the money been spent in the places that need it most, the report found. Africa received 5% of air quality funding between 2017 and 2021, despite being home to five of the 10 countries with the highest levels of air pollution in the world. At the same time, five polluted Asian countries – China, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Mongolia and Pakistan – received 86% of the funding.

Scientists are unsure just how many people are killed by dirty air each year but estimates of the death toll run into the millions just from air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels. Fertiliser from farms, road dust from car tyres and natural factors all add to the mortality burden.

Outdoor air pollution, which was the focus of the Clean Air Fund report, caused 4.2m premature deaths in 2019, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Most of the deaths happen in poor and middle-income countries. In countries across Africa and Asia, in which large parts of the population lack access to electricity, governments have struggled to afford clean sources of energy that are cheaper to run than fossil fuel plants but cost more upfront.

Some countries have taken big steps to clean up their air. China declared a “war against pollution” in 2014 and has brought levels of fine particulates down 40% in a decade. As a result, residents of Beijing can expect to live four years longer on average, according to a report from the Air Quality Life Index of the University of Chicago in August.

People in rich countries are also choking on dangerous levels of toxic pollutants. An investigation by the Guardian last week found 98% of people in Europe are breathing air clogged with so many pollutants it breaches WHO guidelines.

Zorana Jovanovic Andersen, an epidemiologist at the University of Copenhagen and the chair of the environment committee at the European Respiratory Society, said: “The cost of inaction on air pollution to our health and our societies and economies is already too high and unacceptable. It is time to shift these costs from people and the health sector to those who produce pollution.”

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